• Andrew Starr

Old Portsmouth - The Spice Island

This was originally published on September 23rd 2016.

It has been updated many times since.

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One of the most popular tours of Portsmouth I lead is a walking tour of Old Portsmouth and the area known as Portsmouth Point. This area is also known as 'The Spice Island' most likely due to the fact that spices from the Orient were landed at this place in the distant past.

Throughout this page, you will see certain words and phrases underlined. If you click on these you can find further information about the item highlighted, through other websites on the internet. For Wikipedia, there are often pages in other languages available...

Portsmouth Point inspired the composer William Walton in 1925 to compose his orchestral piece also called Portsmouth Point. The artist Thomas Rowlandson had also been inspired to create the etching featured in the YouTube video linked above. This shows the rather bawdy nature this area had garnered for itself as a destination for sailors and their accompanying 'ladies' in the 18th Century.

Once steam ships replaced the smaller vessels, they could no longer dock in this small part of the harbour, so the Naval Base moved further up into Portsmouth Harbour and this area became less frequented by the sailors of the Royal Navy.

This area is now known as Old Portsmouth, where small pleasure boats are now moored. Way back in the 12th Century, Jean de Gisors a Norman and friend of King Richard I (Coeur de Lion) with King John, (Richard's brother, he'd taken over the crown while Richard fought in the Crusades (the one famous in the legends of Robin Hood), was the Lord of the Manor of Buckland in this area. He founded a chapel which has today grown into St Thomas' Cathedral (Portsmouth's Anglican Cathedral).

A charter was given by Richard in 1196 for the settlement to be built and the city began to develop as a tiny settlement around the harbour, which was to grow to become important. Sufficiently important for King John to warrant the area special protection in 1212, effectively founding the Royal Dockyard.

Today, this is the most historic and historically intact part of the city. Escaping the worst of the Blitzkrieg in the early 1940s, many older buildings remain, as do the cobbled streets and tram lines.

The Still and West pub, which is Portsmouth's oldest remaining pub, dating from around 1700 still stands at the entrance to the harbour. Just across the narrow cobbled streets is another ancient pub called 'The Spice Island'. Sir Walter Raleigh unloaded Britain's first potatoes and tobacco on Spice Island in the late 1500s.

A rather modern building graces the area behind the Spice Island, this was, until recently headquarters to Sir Ben Ainslie's America's Cup team.

Sitting on Portsmouth Point you have wonderful views of the harbour and the modern Gunwharf Quays development including the Spinnaker Tower. Remember that in the past this point of the harbour, through the old painting you see above, inspired William Walton to compose his musical piece 'Portsmouth Point' It is available to hear on YouTube.

Across the harbour is Gosport, with its submarine museum. A small foot passenger ferry will take you between Portsmouth Harbour Station and the town centre of Gosport.

In the rest of this blog post, I will take you through in more detail the sights of Old Portsmouth. Many of these you will have seen if you have been on a tour of Old Portsmouth.

1. The Birth of Australia

Along Broad Street, behind the city sea wall ramparts, you can find the 'Bonds of Friendship'. These two interlaced rings are a symbol of the links between Australia and the United Kingdom. There is one here in Portsmouth and another made of shinier bronze to symbolise the 'New World' in Sydney Harbour, Australia. Sydney, today, is Portsmouth's, Sister City.

For it was from here, in the 18th Century (13th May 1787), after the colonies in America had rebelled, making sending prisoners there no longer a viable option, that a fleet of eleven ships set sail from this very part of Portsmouth.

They were under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy. There were many convicts on board, sentenced to deportation to Australia, generally for petty crimes, as more serious crimes at that point were dealt with by the death penalty.

Captain Philip was commissioned to establish a penal colony and to assume the role of Governor. This First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove on 26th January 1788, bringing about the birth of modern Australia.

2. The 'Lost Colony' of Sir Walter Raleigh - The Roanoke Voyages.

In 1587 on April 26th, 91 men, 17 women and 9 children set sail from this city, sent by Sir Walter Raleigh, to found the second colony in the area, then known as Virginia, but now forming part of North Carolina.

They landed on Roanoke Island where they built the "Cittie of Raleigh', this was the first English village in America. On 13th August 1587, they baptised the native American Manteo. On 18 August 1587, Virginia Dare was born, the first child of English parents born in the new world and granddaughter of Governor John White.

This colony "disappeared" between 1587 and 1590 and is now known as 'Raleigh's Lost Colony'

In 2016, the American TV company Fox produced the sixth in its anthology of American Horror Stories, subtitled 'My Roanoke Nightmare'. This series is thought to be loosely based on the mystery surrounding the 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke Island.

3. The Still and West Inn

The Still and West pub states that it is from circa 1600. Indeed it is one of many buildings in Old Portsmouth that made up the vast plethora of pubs, inns and taverns that could be frequented in this part of the city in the past when it was where the naval ships landed and sailors piled off for their shore leave.

It is one of two pubs in the area known as 'Portsmouth Point', which we have already learned about in the earlier part of this blog.

It was in this part of the city, that the legend of the 'Press Gangs' was told. According to these legends, if you were not careful, you might find yourself forced into accepting the king's shilling and thus signing up to be in Royal Navy.

It was from here in 1845, that the last Englishman ever to die in England as a result of a duel being called, set off for his duel on the other side of the harbour. Shot during the duel, he was returned to the Quebec Hotel, where he eventually died of his wounds.

At that time, little was known about bacteria and infection, so if you were wounded, it was often fatal, as infection would set in. It would be the infection that would kill, rather than the original wound.

4. Bath Square and Quebec House

Bath Square is situated just behind the Still and West pub. It is named as such because it was here that the public bathing house stood. Nowadays, there still is a former bathhouse here. This is also known today as Quebec House.

Quebec House is named after the Canadian Province, for it was from here in 1759, that Major General James Wolfe set sail for Canada. On the plains of Abraham in Quebec, Wolfe defeated the French Commander Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. This to the British taking complete control of the Canadian territory.

Being in the navy meant for Wolfe that he had to live in Portsmouth, he had, however, not taken very kindly to it. In 1758, he wrote in a letter to his mother:

"The necessity of living in the midst of the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth is a real and unavoidable calamity. It is a doubt to me if there is such another collection of demons upon the whole earth."

Not exactly a glowing report for the city, but possibly more appropriate for the time.

Now, things have changed somewhat since his time, as a visit to this area of the city now will show. Before he left for Canada, he is alleged to have said that under no circumstance was his body, should he die in the forthcoming battle, to be returned to Portsmouth. Needless to say, he was shipped back to the city after his death, with full military honours, but at least he was buried with his father in Greenwich.

5. The Spice Island Inn

The Spice Island Inn in Bath Square, Portsmouth is on the opposite side of the narrow cobbled street to the Still and West pub. The two pubs make for a popular destination on warm summer evenings, when locals and tourists alike gather to enjoy a nice relaxing drink at the water's edge, watching the boats and ships pass by in the harbour.

This inn, which dates back to the 1700s was once three separate smugglers' pubs. It has also been previously known as 'The Coal Exchange', 'The Union Tavern', 'The Jolly Sailor' and 'The Lone Yachtsman' (after freeman of the city, greengrocer and round-the-world sailor Alec Rose).

6. The Landrover-Bar Headquarters and The Bridge Tavern

The Land Rover Bar Headquarters in Portsmouth were built in time for Portsmouth's hosting of the America's Cup in 2015. The HQ officially opened in June 2015.

Just up behind the Land Rover Bar HQ is situated the Bridge Tavern. The Bridge Tavern is another one of Portsmouth's historic pubs. It can be traced back to its mention on a 1,000-year lease signed from the corporation of Portsmouth in 1656. It plays host to a mural impression of the painting which inspired William Walton to compose 'Portsmouth Point'. Its name comes from a bridge, which used to span the Camber dock at this point. There has been no bridge at this point since 1924. The tavern, however, is still there.

7. The Seagull

This former pub is now an estate agency 'Fry and Kent'. The building itself however retains the features it had as a pub, including the large model of a seagull on its corner eaves of the ground floor, which overlooks Broad Street. This pub was constructed in 1900 for Jewell’s brewery.

Standing in the heart of the city’s historic old town, this Grade II listed building closed in 1970 and became a restaurant by the same name. A sympathetic external facelift in 2014 has helped to preserve this rare architectural survivor. The upper part of the building sports a small tower on the roof, shaped much like a witch's hat. The feature was included in the design of pubs built especially for The Brickwoods Brewery, in Queen Street, Portsea.

The towers were a symbol, telling people that in this building you could get your favourite Brickwoods' beer. Members of the Brickwood family were brewing in Southwark and Whitefriars in London during at least the late sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries.

The Brickwood family became involved in the trade in Portsmouth from the mid-nineteenth century, and eventually became the largest brewer and pub owner in the area.

Their beers were exported around the world and the name became widely known until the family eventually gave in to increasing pressures and sold the business to the much larger Whitbread company in 1971.

8. The Round Tower

It is from here that a great view of the harbour can be seen. Between here and the Square Tower, families and friends gather to welcome in or wave off naval ships as they arrive and leave the harbour. This tower, the ramparts and the Square Tower, were purchased by the City Council in the 1960s.

The Round Tower was the first of a series of permanent fortifications that were built in Portsmouth over the centuries. Work on the Round Tower was begun in about 1418, and it was completed in the 1420s. Before 1400, Portsmouth had been attacked and burnt several times by the French during the Hundred Years War. The Tower was intended to defend the entrance to the Harbour and prevent enemy ships from entering. It was not built specifically to defend the town.

9. The Ramparts

These are high walls protecting the old city from the elements now, upon which you can go for a splendid walk, during more clement weather.

Underneath the ramparts now in the archways are many studios for artists and galleries. There is also a café, currently known as 'The Canteen' from which you can enjoy a drink or some food while enjoying the marvellous views offered by the Solent through the windows.

10. The Square Tower

This tower was built in 1494 as part of fortifications and as a home to the Governor of Portsmouth.

In 1584 it was converted to a gunpowder store, the governor moving residence next to the Garrison Church (Domus Dei).

During the English Civil War, 1200 barrels of gunpowder were stored in the tower.

In 1779, the gunpowder having been relocated, the Square Tower was converted to a Royal Navy meat store until 1850. The tower was manned during the two World Wars and was purchased by Portsmouth City Council along with the ramparts and the Round Tower.

The Square Tower is now used for hosting functions such as weddings, christenings and funerals. It also hosts regular tea rooms and markets.

Join the tours to find out more about all of the following places in the Old Portsmouth/Spice Island area. Including, if it is of interest some of the more gruesome stories of our chequered past

11. Grand Parade and Nelson's Statue

12. Domus Dei (The Garrison Church)

13. Portsmouth Cathedral

14. The Dolphin Inn

15. The Duke of Buckingham

16. Portsmouth Grammar School

17. John Pounds

18. Admiral Lord Nelson's last night of sleep on English soil

19. The views from Portsmouth Point

20. The views from Grand Parade and the Promenade towards Southsea.

and much more...

The galleries of images below collected views of Old Portsmouth and the Spice Island. Some are taken from the Gosport side of the harbour.

Gallery One

Gallery Two

Gallery Three

Gallery Four

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